Everything is Grist for the Mill

I watch very little TV. What I do watch is mostly reruns--Friends and The Big Bang. Both shows are amusing, well-acted, character-driven sitcoms. I don't watch other shows because so much TV is mindless entertainment that eats into my writing time. And yet . . . I've fallen victim to, of all things, a reality show. 

The show follows Big Bang reruns on Wednesday night and I'm so hooked that I've started watching the episodes I missed online. What show is it, you wonder? Master Chef.

If you haven't seen it, this is how it works: Much like the other talent shows on TV, thousands of home cooks vie for a place on the show. Through a process of elimination, the chefs (Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot) chose the talented twenty to compete for the title of Master Chef. Each week, the challenge is different. The competitors may be required to prepare a dish individually to be judged by the three professional chefs, or they might have to work in teams to work a professional kitchen or feed a hundred firefighters. The judges have exacting standards and can be acerbic and demanding. When it comes to the moment of elimination (one person every week), they have no problem playing the kind of head games that make for dramatic TV moments and it's not uncommon for a contestant to be fighting tears when they believe they're about to lose their place in the competition.

This place is heaven for studying people. As a character-driven writer, I'm in hog heaven.

The season starts with twenty-three distinct personalities. You don't get much opportunity to get to know the ones who are eliminated in the first few weeks, but a few stand out even in the early episodes. Like Chrissy, who's from Philadelphia. Brash, plain-spoken, and heavier than any of the others, she's a bit of a loud-mouth, and the character most people probably love to hate (there's always one, isn't there?) I started out feeling that way, too, but I've come to rather like her and to respect her. 

The way the competition is structured, the competitors regularly have the opportunity to target one another, making their task of the week particularly challenging. The smart ones target their strongest competition. By virtue of her abrasive personality, Chrissy has also been a favorite target. Over and over, she's overcome these extra challenges and proven herself in the kitchen. She knows her competitors don't like her, and she doesn't like them, but she's strong enough to keep going, to keep fighting. I really expected she would fall to the judges' ax. But that hasn't happened (at least not yet.) That she's made it to the final four, beating out some amazing cooks, several of who have been publicly invited by one of the judges to come work in one of their restaurants, is not only amazing but a testament to her skill and ability to improvise in the kitchen.

Chrissi has provided a lot of drama on the show. She's open about who she doesn't like and downright gleeful when she drags down one of the competition. As offensive as that characteristic can be, I've come to respect her. For a while, there was a particular animosity between her and Bree. It seems inevitable somehow that there would be because Bree is a vegetarian. Okay, so I didn't like Bree either. She sometimes displayed that overly perky quality that grates on my nerves. And here's a interesting insight. I didn't like her because she's a vegetarian. I'm smart enough to know that my response is not particularly grounded in reality, but being a confirmed carnivore, I suspect vegetarians of feeling smugly superior about their choice not to eat meat. I'm sure some are, but apparently, I'm quite willing to believe that Bree is also without one grain of proof. *sigh* Not a pretty revelation to face but a human failing, and for a writer, an interesting one.

The other three survivors may not be so in-your-face, but they're equally worth studying.

Jessie is a Georgia belle and easily the prettiest of the competitors. How many of us would love to hate her? Yeah, it's not possible. She sweet without being saccharine. She listens to the judges attentively without being defensive, acknowledges her screw-ups, and doesn't beat up on other contestants. I underestimated her for a while because she is a real sweetheart, and while she's the one I'd most like to hang out with, from a writer's standpoint, she would make a bland character in a book.

Natasha seems to be the odd-on favorite to win. In the beginning, she said that she wasn't just "the pretty girl" that most saw. While she's pretty enough, with Jesse on the show, she's not the pretty girl. As a writer, I find it noteworthy that she's stopped referring to her looks. (This change also makes me consider what I could do with a character who is challenged by someone who has more of whatever dominant feature they use to define themselves.) Undoubtedly, a talented cook, Natasha is a classic example classic example of how an attractive quality like confidence becomes unattractive when carried to extreme. 

Her arrogance isn't only about her cooking. When Lynn, one of the top contenders, put forward a disastrous dish that sent him home, everyone cringed. You could see them putting themselves in his shoes, imagining the mortification, but for just a moment, the camera caught Natasha's pleased smile. Crissi may not be the most endearing person, but I respect her honesty. Natasha may be the best cook, but I hope she doesn't win.

Luca has become my favorite. He's Italian-born and has that expressive exuberance often associated with Italian men. He tried out for an earlier season of Master Chef but didn't make the cut. That he came back and tried again gives him that underdog quality that's so appealing. He's also generous as he proved in one episode when Natasha forgot to get garlic from the pantry before she started cooking. Since they're not allowed to go back to the pantry, she had to go begging. Luca shared. When the judge pointed out that he gave away an advantage, he said he didn't want to win like that. His status as my favorite was sealed when the judges played one of their mind games with him and had him convinced that he was seconds from leaving the competition. Watching him fight back the tears of his dashed hopes nearly broke my heart. I'm not sure I'd care much about the outcome if he gets eliminated.

Confession time. I'm not a foodie. I'm actually a picky eater and have been my whole life. I suppose it doesn't really matter since I can't taste the food. The contestants all have the vital quality of wanting something badly which makes the show dramatic, real, entertaining, and for writers, a fantastic lesson in learning how different personalities respond to pressure.

So what reality shows do you watch? And what vital lessons have you learned and applied to your writing?


  1. I don't watch much in the way of television, and not reality television at all.

    All I know of that show is that Gordon Ramsay needs therapy.

    1. Joe actually can be much tougher on the contestants than Gordon, but it's fascinating to watch. It teaches a lot about ways to motivate a character, I think.